Tough decision pays off for Cilliers
It was like old times for Pat Cilliers when the travel-weary Sharks players joined up with the rest of the Springbok squad in Cape Town on Tuesday.
Although the newcomer to the national group plays these days for the Lions, it was as a Sharks player that he cut his teeth in the tough world of the front-row battle. And some of the experienced Sharks players played a big role in helping him get through a tough early part of a career plagued by injury.
“It was good to see the guys and feel that old vibe again when Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis and the rest of the Sharks guys arrived this morning,” said Cilliers.
“I am a born and bred KwaZulu-Natal boy so moving to Johannesburg was a really stressful decision for me to make. I had to think about it long and hard. But I think this (the selection for the Springboks) proves that my decision to go and get more game-time was the right one and it makes it all worthwhile.”
Cilliers was highly rated in Sharks country as a youngster and when he made his debut for the Sharks not long after leaving Michaelhouse, he was already being thought of by the then Sharks coach Dick Muir as a possible leader of the team.
But it didn’t work out for Cilliers who now, at the age of 25, is able to reflect on a few years of frustration as a series of serious injuries prevented his career from launching.
“I tore my AC on my right knee in 2007 and required surgery, and then I suffered cartilage injuries on the same knee the next two seasons. It effectively prevented me from playing for three years, which was extremely frustrating for me and it prevented me from making the progress in my career that I wanted to.”
However Cilliers has now had three years without any major injury problems, and in his time with the Lions he has started to make waves in his preferred position of tighthead prop.
While the Lions have struggled in Super Rugby, the scrumming has often been the one strong point for the embattled franchise.
“I think we did well as a scrum at the Lions and Callie Visagie arriving as a hooker helped. I have felt strong in the scrums this season and have been happy with the way it has gone. I was part of the 40 that got called to Durban at the start of the England series but was then cut from the squad. That motivated me to go out there and prove myself.
The Springbok front row is relatively settled and is the same one that kept Cilliers from getting more game time at the Sharks and helped prompt his move to Johannesburg.
However his versatility means there is a good chance he will be on the bench for the matches against Australia, which means he should get to make his debut either at Newlands on 18 August or in Mendoza the following week.
“The coaches have spoken to me about my ability to play on both sides of the scrum and it seems to have played a role in my selection. I do prefer tighthead as I have played there for the past two seasons, but I have experience of playing loosehead.”
He knows it will be a tough baptism if he does get to play for the Boks for the first time in the forthcoming matches, as Argentina is a nation renowned for scrumming strength.
“I know I played against the Pampas XV sometime in a Vodacom Cup match and I remember them being very tough upfront. It will be a good challenge if I get game time against them.”
Cilliers has had a brief meeting with the former South African born French international prop Pieter de Villiers, who these days works as the Springbok scrum coach, and says he is looking forward to learning from his experience.
“Pieter de Villiers is a legend and it is great being able to work with him. Hopefully I will be able to keep learning from him.”